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In post-Reformation England, women who suffered from fertility problems could no longer apply to saints to intercede on their behalf. Instead, the new Protestant theology stressed the idea of divine providence and encouraged infertile women to pray to God directly while also accepting His will should He choose not to grant them a child. These views were promoted by authors of prescriptive literature for women, but also in sermons intended for a general audience that utilized stories of biblical infertility in order to teach lessons on faith and prayer. This article examines religious responses toward infertility in the period following the Reformation, and argues that the Protestant religion offered infertile women an avenue for comfort and aid in their difficulties when they could no longer appeal to saintly intercession.

Early modern English society saw childbirth and reproduction as central to self-identity and to the fulfilment of gender roles and religious duties. Married couples desired children for practical, emotional, and religious reasons.1 Early modern physicians wrote numerous tracts about the promotion of fertility, and they offered a variety of treatments for fertility problems including herbal remedies based on the Galenic medical theory, as well as water cures, chemical distillations, and patent medicines.2 The social and cultural importance of reproduction, however, meant that infertility was seen as more than a medical condition to be treated. It was a personal crisis with significant social ramifications. Childbirth had particular significance for married women in this society, because both religious literature and cultural norms linked motherhood with the proper fulfillment of the roles of womanhood.3

Many ideas about childbirth in this period were uniform throughout Europe, but the Protestant Reformation brought some profound changes to England and elsewhere. In Catholic Europe women could choose one of two potential avenues for performing their religious duty: the more common avenue of marriage and childbirth, or the “sacred” avenue of virginity through celibacy. By contrast, Protestantism highlighted marriage as “the best Christian life” and rejected celibacy as impractical for most people. Protestant thinkers promoted sexuality within marriage, in large part (although not exclusively) because of its procreative nature. Indeed, in a sermon on marriage Martin Luther insisted that “although women had brought about [End Page 86] the Fall, they were sanctified by the bearing of children,” and this idea was echoed by other reformers.4 For Protestant women, therefore, reproduction became a central avenue toward the fulfillment of their religious duties.

When reproduction failed, patients in this period sought medical treatment and advice from gynecological manuals and physicians. In the devout society of early modern England they also turned to religion. This article examines religious attitudes toward infertility in post-Reformation England. It argues that even in a society in which infertile women could no longer appeal to saintly intercession, they nonetheless found comfort in their faith. Protestant preachers encouraged infertile women to pray directly to God to ask for children, while at the same time admonishing women to accept God’s will even if this meant that they would remain childless. Infertile women embraced these messages, using prayer to deal with their infertility in an active way, but also finding meaning in their reproductive difficulties by viewing them as part of a divine plan.

The stories of barren women in the Bible offered both negative and positive responses to the trial of infertility, and preachers used these stories when they discussed infertility. But women invoked these stories in order to shape their own responses to infertility, seeing the barren matriarchs as direct role models for their own behavior. This article begins with an examination of prescriptive religious literature that Protestant divines wrote for a female audience and its promotion of the idea of providence and identification with biblical role models. It then considers the experiences of several early modern women who suffered from fertility problems and wrote about their religious feelings surrounding their reproductive difficulties. Finally, this article discusses sermons that utilized the biblical stories of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah in order to promote broad ideas about faith, prayer, and the role of divine providence. Sermons used these biblical stories because they were cases in which God intervened directly in an individual’s life in response to prayer. By using these particular biblical stories, preachers also reinforced ideas about infertility that were promoted in prescriptive literature as well as views that linked motherhood and womanhood. Despite the wide varieties of Protestantism in post-Reformation England, most Protestant preachers discussed infertility in a similar way. Thus while the preachers examined here held widely divergent religious beliefs, they nonetheless took a fairly uniform approach to the role of intercessory prayer and providence as they promoted it through discussions of biblical infertility.5

By examining the presentation of infertility in prescriptive literature for women, in personal accounts, and in sermons intended for a broader audience, this article traces the ways in which religious ideas in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England related to cultural perceptions of marriage and reproduction. It also suggests that believers internalized and [End Page 87] adapted religious concepts such as divine providence and faith for their own specific purposes.

Views of Infertility Before and After the Reformation

In the late Middle Ages, patients commonly responded to medical problems by seeking aid from saints through a variety of devotional practices. The Church stressed that “the saints were only intercessors whose entreaties might go unheeded,” but it also promoted the idea that saints were likely to respond positively to requests for intercession.6 Like most aspects of life, reproductive matters had their own patron saints. Women prayed to the Virgin Mary when they had reproductive concerns, because she was the ultimate symbol of motherhood.7 Mary’s mother, St. Anne, was the patron saint of barren women, because of an apocryphal story that she had conceived only through divine intervention.8 St. Margaret the Virgin was a patron saint of pregnant women because she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon and then escaped from it unscathed, much as a child emerges from its mother’s womb.9 Devotional practices involving these saints included pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings. In addition, women also used “working relics,” meaning relics held by monasteries or churches that were loaned to people for specific uses. For example, when Thomas Cromwell conducted visitations in English parishes at the request of Henry VIII during the 1530s, in the early years of the English Reformation, he found that women used numerous kinds of relics, girdles, combs, and other religious paraphernalia to aid in pregnancy and childbirth.10 Religious cures based on relics and prayers to saints were used either in conjunction with medical treatment (by learned physicians as well as more informal medical practitioners), or after all medical intervention had supposedly failed.11

The minority of English women who remained practicing Catholics after the Reformation continued to appeal to saintly intervention in matters of reproduction and fertility. The majority of English women meanwhile faced a new theological reality devoid of this form of intercession. Protestant reformers placed ideas about providence and an omnipotent and interventionist God at the center of their theology, a move designed to “undermine devotion to the saints.”12 Sermons by Protestant preachers, both Puritan and otherwise, stressed the idea of divine intervention in people’s lives, as well as God’s omnipotence and His ability to accomplish the otherwise impossible. At the same time, anti-Catholic rhetoric attempted to discredit a belief system that allowed for miracles and saintly intercession as part of daily life.13 [End Page 88]

Calvinist theology expressed ambivalence about prayer because the suggestion that an individual could affect the course of their life through prayer contradicted the doctrine of predestination. Scholars have nonetheless found that belief in providence and intercessory prayer was prevalent in Protestant England. Believers were expected to have faith in providence while also resigning themselves to God’s will and engaging in prayer and repentance.14 This “provided Puritans with consolation when their children, friends and relatives died, and with stoical courage and patience in the face of chronic illness, financial misfortune and military defeat.”15 Thus many preachers offered their audiences hope by suggesting that prayer provided a method of applying God’s power to their own lives. In order to achieve this, Protestant divines increasingly focused on the idea of God’s omnipotence and the idea of providence—that God was an active deity, one who took complete interest in the lives of the believers and without whom nothing happened in the world. God controlled everything that transpired in the universe and also the events that affected each person in particular. God intervened in regular daily occurrences as well as irregular occurrences. He administered the punishment of the wicked on the one hand and offered divine assistance—like curing an infertile woman—on the other. God’s intervention could be sought by those who had faith and who prayed earnestly.16

The Reformation increased the cultural significance of the Bible and particularly the Old Testament. Old Testament examples gained particular importance after the Reformation because they offered “the possibility of models of conduct without the fear that they would be tainted with past traditions of Catholic veneration and worship.”17 For women who struggled with infertility, the biblical matriarchs who had conceived through God’s intervention offered particularly powerful role models.

Identification with individuals from the Bible did not begin in the post-Reformation period. Medieval women also saw Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth as models to some extent.18 For example, The Golden Legend, one of the most popular collections of hagiographies in the medieval world, included the biblical stories of conception with divine aid.19 Yet Catholic women’s relationships with biblical role models were somewhat different from those of Protestant women. For Catholic women, the Virgin Mary and the saints associated with reproduction did not serve simply as biblical examples or symbols of motherhood but as powerful women to whom they could pray and ask directly for help.20

Protestant women could turn to no intercessory figures of this kind. They could pray only directly to God. Therefore biblical women who had conceived through prayer were much more significant models for Protestant women than for Catholic women. Unlike the powerful saints, the biblical matriarchs were essentially regular women who could only rely on prayer [End Page 89] and faith in order to seek aid for their condition. Protestant women could therefore easily identify with the barren matriarchs. A woman emulating Hannah and praying to God for aid behaved in accord with Protestant providential thinking on this matter. The historian Keith Thomas argues that women in the seventeenth century were “still” emulating Hannah, which he sees as a legacy of the “magical” thinking of a pre-Reformation view. Thomas does not take into account that it was precisely because of the Reformation that women emulated Hannah and identified with her. Women in the pre-Reformation world did not need to emulate Hannah by praying directly to God. They could make an offering to Saint Anne or borrow Mary’s girdle from their church. It was only after the Reformation that women began to see Hannah as a role model.21

Prescriptive Literature for Infertile Women

“Oh Lord of Hosts, if thou wilt looke on the trouble of thine handmaid . . . and not forget thine handmaid, but give unto thine handmaid a manchild.” These are the opening words of Hannah’s prayer for a son, in which she agrees to offer God her child if He cures her of her barrenness.22 While the words themselves are biblical, they are quoted here not from the Bible, but rather from The Monument of Matrons (1582), Thomas Bentley’s compilation of prayers and religious guidance for women.23 In the index to the work, which listed prayers according to their uses, Hannah’s prayer for a child was identified as a prayer “Against Barrennesse.”24 Hannah’s words were thus converted from a personal entreaty made by one woman under particular circumstances to a general prayer that all women were encouraged to use when they struggled with infertility. By making the connection between divine intervention in Hannah’s case and the potential for divine intervention in the lives of his readers, Bentley promoted the providential worldview central to Protestant theology in England.

The topic of infertility appeared in some of the most popular religious guidebooks of the early modern period. Prescriptive religious manuals, especially those targeted at women, addressed the subject of infertility and offered women a religious response to it. The views promoted in these books relied on the belief that married women desired above all else to be mothers and that this should be their goal. The books presented infertility as a test of faith and encouraged women to respond to it by regular, humble, and devout prayer. At the same time, they also admonished women to accept God’s will even if they did not conceive, and not to make excessive demands. In order to promote these views, the books created explicit connections between their readers and biblical role models, usually presenting Hannah as a positive role model and Rachel as a negative one. [End Page 90]

Samuel Hieron’s Helpe Unto Devotion became one of the most popular works of piety in seventeenth-century England, appearing in numerous editions between 1608 and 1650.25 From its second edition onward the book contained a prayer to be used by infertile women, titled: “Som barren Hannah, or childlesse Elizabeth, desiring to bee blessed with fruite of bodie, prayeth thus.”26 The title encouraged the reader to see herself in the context of biblical stories and invited her to make the connection explicit by stating in her prayer that “Neither am I the first (O most merciful Lord God) whom thou hast thus afflicted, neither am I without examples of holy persons, who have both sued unto thee for comfort in such an occasion, and have beene heard also of thee in that they desired.”27 Hieron thus asked readers to consider the examples of holy women who had been afflicted with infertility and who were cured, seeing their stories as proof both that God could cure them and that they should not consider infertility a sign that God did not love them or had abandoned them.

Hieron also suggested that barrenness was a form of punishment for sins and that his reader should examine herself in order to understand what she might have done to deserve the affliction. This was part of the prevalent belief that God tested the faith of believers and offered them signs to persuade those who strayed to mend their ways. According to this belief, a woman tested by God was not abandoned by Him, but rather offered a chance to do better. Hieron wrote: “Humble me (I praie thee) under thy hand, and grant that I may truely and sincerely, and feelinglie, acknowledge, that though this be no little crosse, yet it is nothing to that which I have deserved. It is just, I confesse with thee, to punish my barrennesse in grace, and my fruitlessnesse in holy things, with this want of outwarde encrease.”28

In the Reformed worldview promoted by Hieron and other authors, the medical and personal misfortune of infertility could only be understood as either a test or a punishment for sins. Yet even as Hieron presented this discouraging view, he did offer women the hope that if they prayed earnestly and put their faith in God, their desires might be granted, as indicated by Hannah’s story. Hieron also prepared women to accept their fate regardless of whether their prayer was met or not: “Teach me withall,” the prayer continued, “so to referre my desires to thy wisedome, and to submit them to thy gracious disposing, that if it shall seeme good to thee, not to grant this my request, I may not murmure against thee, but may patiently and quietlie beare, whatsoever eyther in this, or in anie other kind thou shalt lay upon mee.” 29 The praying woman thus asked not only that God would give her a child, but also that if He did not grant her request, He would aid her in bearing her fate and retaining her faith.

Like Hieron, New England minister Cotton Mather also included a discussion of infertility in his Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion (1692).30 Mather [End Page 91] began by stressing the religious importance of marriage and childbirth for women and, by extension, the heavy burden borne by infertile women. “If a Vertuous wife be Deny’d the Blessing of Children,” Mather continued, “her Not Bearing is not a Trial that she can not Bear.” Rather, the barren wife should model her behavior on the biblical Hannah’s: “She humbly, addresses the God of Heaven, like Hannah, for that Gracious and Powerful word of His which makes Fruitful, as Remembering, That Children are an Heritage of the Lord, and the Fruitful Womb is His Reward.”31 The infertile woman should not take for granted that God would aid her conception, but should rather see children as a special blessing that God may give her.

Mather also advised barren women on what they should not do, using Rachel as a negative role model. In the Bible, Rachel did not only ask for a child, but demanded it, imploring Jacob to give her children “or else I die.”32 Rachel thus exemplified impatience and a lack of humility, and Mather suggested that following Rachel’s example would lead to dire consequences: if the barren woman “pines,” like Rachel and states that she may die if she does not have children, she may find herself dying in childbirth. Instead of pining excessively for a child, Mather argued, the infertile woman should recognize that “it [barrenness] causes her to be more Fruitful in all the good Works of Piety and Charity; more Fruitful in her Endeavors otherwise to Serve her Generation after the will of God; more Fruitful in all those things whereby The Heavenly Father may be glorified.”33 Thus while motherhood provided an important outlet for women’s religiosity, Mather recommended other ways that women could fulfill their religious duties, promoting the idea that barrenness could signal sinfulness or a trial of faith, but rejecting the idea that childlessness indicated a woman’s certain damnation.34

The advice that Bentley, Hieron, and Mather presented to their readers promoted the providential worldview by suggesting that the proper response to infertility was humble prayer to God, following Hannah’s example. They offered infertile women a clear course of action in order to seek divine aid for their affliction while also reinforcing the negative social stigma of infertility both by stressing the importance of motherhood for a woman’s self-identity and by suggesting that infertility could constitute a form of punishment for sins. They offered infertile women hope and comfort, but maintained the view that such women bore something of a curse.

Women’s Religious Responses to Fertility Problems

How were these prescriptive messages received by women themselves? This question can only be answered tentatively because only a handful of women left any record of their religious sentiments about reproductive difficulties. Women who left written accounts cannot, by definition, be [End Page 92] considered “typical,” because they had a higher degree of literacy than the average early modern woman. The examples that follow are associated with “godly” or “Puritan” women who were more likely to write spiritual diaries. However, the limited sources available indicate that some Protestant women accepted motherhood as a woman’s central identity and as a path to fulfilling their religious duties. They saw their struggles with fertility as a test of faith, and they responded to this as the prescriptive literature suggested: by praying earnestly and regularly to God for aid. They saw biblical women as role models for motherhood and emulated their example. However, not unlike their biblical role models, early modern women also found themselves losing faith in the promise that God would grant them children. They wanted to follow the advice to submit to God’s will graciously even if they remained childless, but they found this acceptance difficult. As devout women, they not only feared childlessness itself, but also a potential crisis of faith.

Mary Whitelocke (d. 1684), the third wife of the prominent lawyer and politician Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, offers the most explicit example of a woman who emulated biblical role models on matters of reproduction. Her marriage to Bulstrode was a second marriage and she had no children with her first husband. Bulstrode, by contrast, already had ten children of his own from a previous marriage. In her memoir, Whitelocke expressed her initial awe at the prospect of marrying a man with so many children. She eventually realized, however, that if she herself remained childless, she would still have children to raise and to inherit her estate.35 After the couple married in 1650, Whitelocke discovered a deep desire for children of her own despite her husband’s numerous offspring. In this she was similar to Rachel and Hannah, who both wanted a child for their own sake, despite the fact that their husbands already had children with other women. Whitelocke prayed to God to grant her a child of her own: “And I did beg of God very much in the time I was so long without any child,” she wrote, “that if ever he would give me a child, He would be pleased to make it His child, and I did promise to God, that if ever He should give me a child, I would . . . dedicate him to His service.”36 By promising to dedicate her child to the service of God, Whitelocke followed Hannah’s example in every respect. In fact, when she did eventually give birth to a son, she named him Samuel, like Hannah’s child.37 Bulstrode recorded Samuel’s birth in his diary, describing him as “a childe of prayers, & whom God gave unto his Mother after she had bin 14 years marryed to her former husband, w[i]thout any childe borne.”38 Both Mary Whitelocke and her husband viewed their Samuel as a direct result of prayer and as a gift from God.

Another woman who left a personal account of her spiritual response to infertility was Sarah Savage (1664–1752), the daughter of Philip Henry, [End Page 93] a prominent nonconformist minister. An educated woman, she could read and write in English and Hebrew. She remained devout throughout her life, summarizing sermons she heard and reading religious works. Like all of her family members, Savage kept a spiritual diary and it was here that she recorded her experience with fertility problems.39 Savage was not as explicit in emulating the matriarchs, but like Whitelocke she also relied greatly on prayer as the means to deal with her desire for a child.

Savage did not record hearing sermons specifically related to the biblical stories of barren women but from the sermons she did mention we know that she was very familiar with biblical stories relating to childbirth and reproduction. Moreover, she saw those stories as directly relevant to her own life and to the lives of her family members. For example, on October 9, 1687, Savage noted that she was particularly affected by a sermon on Genesis 22, the story of Abraham taking Isaac to sacrifice. She found herself wondering whether she could “resign up to God any Isaac I have.”40 When her brother was married in July 1687, Savage wished that God would make her brother’s wife “like Rachel & like Leah,” the two biblical sisters who married Jacob and became the symbolic mothers of the Hebrews. These women are the ultimate symbols of Old Testament motherhood.41

Savage was married on March 25, 1687. Writing about her wedding night a few days later, she expressed hope that God would help her to fulfill her new roles “to discharge of duties as a wife, a mother & a daughter-in-law.”42 For Savage, becoming a mother was clearly connected with fulfilling the duties of a wife. On May 22, 1687, just two months after her wedding, Savage was already expressing a desire for children and a concern that perhaps she might not be “fruitful.” “This day a little desirous th[a]t God w[oul]d please to make me a fruitfull vine if hee see good, ” she wrote “but if not I will submit to him.”43 The metaphor of the “fruitful vine” which appeared in Savage’s diary as well as in Hieron’s prayer book comes from Psalm 128:3: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.”

Savage referred to her fertility problems either explicitly or implicitly on a few occasions. She believed that praying to God for a child was the appropriate response to her problems and she seems to have done so earnestly and regularly. She also echoed the message that appeared in Hieron’s work, that if God would not give her a child, she should accept this fate willingly. However, her continued disappointment at every menstrual period and her constant need to express the feeling that she would love God regardless suggest that perhaps accepting her condition was more difficult than she would have liked.

Most of Savage’s references to her infertility were veiled. In the entry for Friday, June 10, 1687, she wrote “That day and Satt[urday]. Had hopes [End Page 94] th[a]t my God w[oul]d hear my prayer in a Particular matter yet still I referr the matter wholly to him,” while on the Sunday she noted having some impatient thoughts because she feared disappointment.44 It is likely that the “particular matter” was that of childbearing, because Savage was explicit when she wrote about other types of problems. Furthermore, as the historian Patricia Crawford has demonstrated, Savage’s recurring mention of a “fear of disappointment” was timed in such a way that it probably coincided with her monthly cycle.45 It is significant that Savage refers to “my God” and on other occasions to “my heavenly father,” using a possessive expression that may indicate that she saw God as personally involved in her life. On July 19 Savage wrote: “had hopes still t[ha]t God will grant the Lawf[ull?] desires of my soul as far as is good for me yet I trust all my concernments with him, desiring to bee ready for disappointments.”46 Despite her disappointment, she still adhered to the providential view that her desires were to be granted by God, and that she should not only pray to have what she wanted but also be willing to accept the disappointments with equanimity.

In September 1687, Savage claimed to have reached a certain degree of acceptance about God’s hand in the matter of her fertility. She wrote “I have attained to a good degree of satisfaction that if God sh[oul]d deny mee the mercy of children . . . it is in infin[ite] wised[om] if hee totally deny it it is in mercy & in love to my soul and hee see good to bestow it hee will. In the mene time, it is good for mee to hope & quietly to wait upon him.”47 Savage, however, repeated the claim that she had accepted that she might not have children on several other occasions, suggesting that she was writing what she thought she ought to feel rather than expressing a complete acceptance of her situation.48

Savage’s diary suggests that she accepted both the message that a barren woman desiring children should pray regularly and earnestly for them, and that she should at the same time be willing to accept God’s will, whether it be to delay or to deny the fulfillment of her requests. Furthermore, although she did not explicitly emulate the example of barren, biblical women, she expressed familiarity with their stories and indicated that she saw the matriarchs as symbols of motherhood with whom she identified. Savage eventually gave birth to nine children, four of whom survived her.

The poet Anne Bradstreet, who was born in England but immigrated to New England in 1630, left an account of her life for her children. In this account, Bradstreet noted that after her marriage: “It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me, and cost mee many prayers and tears before I obtaind one.”49 Like Savage, Bradstreet saw her early infertility as an act of God and considered the appropriate response to be prayer. In fact, she interpreted this difficulty, as all others, as a test meant to remind her to examine her own life. “Among all my experiences [End Page 95] of God’s gratious Dealings with me,” she wrote, “I have constantly observed this, that he hath never suffered me long to sitt loose from him, but by one affliction or other hath made me look home, and search what was amisse.”50 Bradstreet’s attitude demonstrates that she believed that difficulties in life, including fertility problems, were meant to encourage her to explore her faith and rekindle it.

Only a handful of women left direct references to their religious beliefs surrounding reproduction. These examples do not offer comprehensive evidence of how devout women dealt with infertility or to what extent they accepted the messages promoted by preachers and authors of religious guidebooks. These few examples do nonetheless suggest that some women accepted the idea that prayer was the appropriate response to reproductive difficulties and used it to attempt to secure divine intervention in their daily lives. These women also saw the biblical matriarchs as role models both for motherhood itself and for proper behavior in the face of infertility. When they sought reproductive intervention, they considered the blessings God had given to Sarah and Rebecca, and when they prayed for children they did so in emulation of Hannah.

Biblical Infertility in Sermons: A Broader Message

Preachers’ sermons played a very important role in early modern English Protestantism, “almost to the exclusion of other pastoral activities,” according to a recent study on the topic.51 Sermons were delivered regularly at parish churches as well as other public venues. Some were then published and then reread aloud for a wider audience. Because sermons were accessible both to literate and illiterate audiences, they played a particularly important role in shaping people’s worldview on various subjects.52 Sermons could be used not only to teach a particular religious lesson but also to offer role models, teach proper conduct and behavior, and advise people on the appropriate way to handle difficult situations as believers.53 Women regularly attended sermons because men were encouraged to bring their entire household to hear the preachers. Women could also attend sermons as leaders of a household, together with their children and servants.54

Protestant preachers used their sermons to promote the ideas of divine providence and the importance of faith and prayer. Many of these sermons used biblical stories about God curing infertility as lessons on faith. Such stories rarely provided the main focus of a sermon, but they recurred frequently as evidence that God did intervene in the lives of believers and as prescriptive guides when asking for divine aid.

Stories of biblical infertility offered particularly compelling evidence of the reality of divine providence because they related to everyday matters. [End Page 96] Grand miracles such as the parting of the sea or the fall of the walls of Jericho were certainly seen as proof of God’s awesome power, but it was difficult for believers to see such great acts as relevant to their own personal lives and ambitions. By contrast, a barren woman giving birth to a child proved that God also listened to individual prayers and responded to them. This message was relevant to all believers, not merely to women struggling to conceive, and it served a variety of purposes for preachers. Not only did these stories demonstrate that God responded to prayers and intervened in individuals’ daily lives, but they also served as useful metaphors for the rekindling of faith and for trading the barrenness of idolatry for the fruitfulness of true belief.

Sermons that used stories of infertility as a tool served to reinforce the religious views that appeared in guidebooks and in women’s own writings. Sermons promoted the use of biblical barren women as role models and encouraged women to pray for the child they desired. They also described childbearing as a blessing and infertility as a curse, thus reiterating cultural norms that cast infertility in a negative light. In particular, they strengthened the view that a woman’s self-identity was defined through motherhood because the barren women of the Bible were married to men who already had children with other women. The biblical matriarchs wanted children for their own reasons and not only to provide their husbands with progeny. This was also true for many women who dealt with infertility in early modern England. Both Mary Whitelocke and Sarah Savage married widowers who already had heirs, yet they still felt the sting of infertility and desired children of their own. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673), wrote in her fictionalized Sociable Letters (1664) of an infertile acquaintance that “the Lady E. Ks. Husband being a Widdower when he Married her, and having Sons to Inherit his Estate, and to Keep up his Family, I Know no Reason why she should be troubled for having no Children.”55 Yet Cavendish herself sought treatment for infertility from one of the foremost physicians in seventeenth-century England, despite the fact that her husband, William, was a widower with male heirs.56

The most frequent biblical story of barrenness to appear in the sermons was that of Abraham and Sarah who eventually had a son when they were both old and long after Sarah had ceased to menstruate. The preachers who used this story often claimed that when the angel told the couple that they would have a child, Abraham believed while Sarah initially laughed in disbelief. The preachers used this as a vehicle for discussing faith.57 “How many things might they both have objected against this [having a child]?” wrote Puritan preacher Arthur Hildersam in 1635, “Yet they did not, but undoubtedly beleeved it should be, even as God had spoken.”58 Some preachers focused on Sarah’s lack of faith, criticizing her while lauding [End Page 97] Abraham’s faith in God’s promise (further proved in his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, later on). Other preachers merely used Sarah’s laughter as evidence that the conception had been impossible other than through divine intervention, thus proving the efficacy of divine providence.

Claims by seventeenth-century preachers that Abraham believed while Sarah laughed do not accord with scripture. As Genesis 17:17 states, “Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?”59 Abraham’s laughter and disbelief is not mentioned in these sermons, no doubt because their main intent was to highlight the significance of faith by contrasting Sarah’s response to the angel with Abraham’s. Moreover, in a society that viewed women as inherently unreliable, it was more consistent to portray Sarah as the faithless woman who needed convincing and Abraham as the symbol of unwavering faith in God.60

In 1645, the pastor and preacher John Eachard, from Suffolk, used the story of Sarah and Abraham in a sermon that was intended for soldiers fighting in the English Civil Wars (1642–1651). Eachard argued that the Devil tries to persuade people that God’s actions are impossible, therefore causing them to lose faith. But according to Eachard, men of faith know that God is almighty, and therefore believe even in the impossible. When an angel told Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah, despite her barrenness and the fact that she had ceased to menstruate, it was “a battell of faith against sight and reason, and above hope, yet he [Abraham] beleeved under hope, and gave glory unto God, that he which had promised, was able to do it, and got victory.”61 According to Eachard, faith meant believing in God beyond all reason.

Eachard was making a broad point intended to protect soldiers against the influence of the devil and of “papists,” but a woman listening to this sermon or reading it might very well have heard another message: that a supplicant who expressed faith in God might be granted a child, even if this was medically impossible, because God was capable of the impossible. According to a sermon by Anthony Burgess in 1656, the fact that Abraham believed in the prophecy despite the fact that Sarah was barren “argued stronger Faith then [sic] if she had been a fruitful woman.”62 The very fact that Sarah was barren and past childbearing years allowed her conception to serve as proof of God’s power. The unlikelihood of the conception rendered Abraham’s faith all the more extraordinary, making this interpretation of the story of Abraham and Sarah a potent tool for encouraging believers to have faith in God and His help even against impossible odds.63

Abraham’s belief was lauded by preachers who derided Sarah’s lack of faith, and it allowed preachers to create a metaphorical link between the [End Page 98] birth of faith and the birth of a child. For example, Thomas Jackson, dean of Peterborough, wrote in a 1617 sermon that when Sarah laughed at the angel she was reproved for her “slowness to believe” and then “as if it was a matter of greater difficulty to rowse her dul faith than to quicken her dead wombe,” the angel was forced to repeat once again his message that she would have a child.64 Jackson made a direct correlation between bringing life to a “dead” womb and bringing faith to Sarah herself, suggesting that the one could arouse the other; by fulfilling his promise, God awakened Sarah’s faith. Perhaps it also suggested the opposite: that when Sarah came to have faith in the angel’s message, God honored his promise.65

Seventeenth-century sermons treated the children born of conceptions by barren women as particularly blessed. In 1658 Thomas Blake wrote a treatise about, among other things, God’s promise to Abraham. Blake claimed that the promise was not meant for all of Abraham’s heirs, but only for “that seed which God by miracle (according to promise) gave to Abraham by Sarah, when she was past years of child-bearing.”66 Blake claimed that Isaac’s birth had required a miraculous intervention because Sarah was both barren and past her childbearing years. Therefore, Isaac’s descendants symbolized the Elect, while Abraham’s other descendants symbolized those outside the Covenant between God and Abraham. The preacher Samuel Bold also claimed that Isaac, because he had been “born after the Spirit . . . Who was the Son of the Promise, and in order to whose Birth, there was the Exerting a Divine Power,” represented the “true children of Israel,” those who had faith in God and were therefore seen as the real “children” of Abraham. By contrast, Ishmael, who was “born after the Flesh,” symbolized those who were “outwardly Jews,” but did not actually follow Abraham in the faith.67 Blake and Bold saw Abraham and Sarah’s descendants as special, because they had been born as a result of God’s miraculous intervention. The descendants of Ishmael, born to the handmaiden Hagar, might claim descent from Abraham, but they were regular children of the “flesh,” without the spiritual power that came from Sarah’s miraculous conception. Isaac’s descendants thus symbolized the true believers, while Ishmael’s symbolized those who acted as though they were truly faithful, but were not among the Elect.

The idea that the sons of barren women were particularly holy was not limited to Isaac, and recurred with regard to other biblical tales of barren women conceiving. John Merbecke’s book of commonplaces, published in 1602, devoted a chapter to barrenness. According to Merbecke, barren women were subject to reproach because they “enjoyed not the promise which God made to them that were married to have issue.” This barrenness could however be a blessing in disguise because “barren mothers [End Page 99] have brought forth excellent men,” including Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Barrenness may have been considered an “ignominious” thing, but “God because he would declare, that of things most contemptible, he can bring forth things excellent, hath verie oftentimes done after this manner.”68 The fact that barren women bore important men thus served as a lesson that God could make good things out of bad. Thomas Adams gave a sermon at St. Paul’s Cross in 1615 in which he spoke at length about why the mothers of great men were often barren. Adams observed, “many holy Women, ordained to be the mothers of men specially famous and worthy, were yet long barren. Sara the wife of Abraham, that bore Isaac: Rebeccah the wife of Isaac that bore Iacob: Rahel the wife of Iacob, that bore Iospeh: Anne the mother of Samuel, Elizabeth the mother of Iohn the Baptist.”69 All of these cases in which God intervened to cause barren women to conceive were, of course, merely a precursor to the most important reproductive intervention in Christianity: the birth of Jesus to a virgin mother.

It is notable that all of these “miracle children” were male. The apocryphal story that the Virgin Mary was born to a barren mother was not part of the Protestant discussion of infertility. The sermons suggested that when God wanted to mark a man as particularly blessed or holy, he did so throughout a woman’s body, that of his mother. In a similar way, God could also mete out punishment on sinful men by hindering their wives’ reproductive capacity. Donald Lupton argued in 1634 that infertility was punishment for a womb that was not “holy,” and that God threatened to give “dry breasts, and barren wombs as a curse to sinfull and disobedient Husbands.”70 God could convey his messages to men through a mother’s body. The wife’s reproductive faculties were considered an extension of the husband, something belonging to him that could be taken away in order to punish him for his actions. While this might seem as though it laid the “blame” of barrenness with the husband rather than his wife, in the seventeenth century even when the husband’s body was understood to be the cause of infertility, his wife was still perceived as a “barren woman” with the attendant stigma.71

Sermons also utilized stories of biblical barren women to offer prescriptive advice regarding how Christian believers should behave. Like the authors of the prescriptive literature cited above, the preachers saw Rachel as a negative example of excessive demands and impatience. In 1684, Joseph Hall described Rachel’s response to her childlessness as petty and faithless. “What an affliction was it to good Jacob (more than the sterility of a beloved wife),” Hall wrote, “to hear Rachel said; Give me Children or else I dye? Yea, how ill did it sound in the mouth of the Father of the Faithful; Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go Childless? . . . How must this needs irritate a munificent God to see his bounty contemned out of a childish pettishness?”72 Two decades earlier Abraham Wright also [End Page 100] criticized Rachel for “suborn[ing] her handmade to make her a mother,” thus trying to “affect God’s blessings by unlawful means,” seeing this as a sign of her impatience and lack of faith.73 Rachel’s response to infertility was considered in these sermons to lack humility and to signify excessive insistence and impatience.74

If Rachel exemplified what to avoid when asking for divine aid, Hannah represented the proper role model for the humble petitioner. Hannah prayed extensively to be made fruitful and promised that if she were given a son she would dedicate him to the service of God, a promise she fulfilled when she gave birth to Samuel. Hannah’s earnest yet humble prayers and her selfless willingness to give up her child to the service of God made her the perfect symbol of appropriate supplication. The English literature scholar Michelle Osherow argues that Hannah was particularly important to Protestant preachers because she was explicitly described as engaging in silent, private prayer of a kind rarely seen in the Bible, but condoned by the Protestants.75

In 1647, Thomas Fuller used Hannah as an example in a published sermon that he preached fourteen years earlier on the subject of religious assurance. This sermon claimed that assurance in one’s religious well-being was granted as a blessing from God. If one has not yet achieved it, then it was because it had not yet been asked for fervently enough. As an example of this, he noted that: “Hannah called her sonne, Samuel, for (said shee) I have asked him of the Lord. Every good thing, temporall, spirituall, inward, outward, every particular grace must be a Samuel, craved and requested of God before the fruition thereof can be sweet to our soules.”76

Sermons used these biblical examples in order to promote a providential worldview, encourage the audience to place its faith in God, and caution them against excessive demands. These were broad messages intended for a wide audience. But for women hoping for a child such sermons contained an additional layer beyond the admonition to keep faith. The sermons reinforced the view that infertile women should pray for a child and identify with biblical role models. By using reproduction as a metaphor for faith itself and describing the desire for a child as the biblical woman’s ultimate desire, the sermons reinforced the cultural view that childbirth and motherhood were central to a woman’s identity. Such sermons also offered hope to infertile women by suggesting that, like Sarah and Hannah, barren women could not only conceive a child, but that child might have a special role to play in the divine plan. This would have helped to steel these women against the social stigma that accompanied the status of being married and childless. Richard Younge, the author of several popular religious tracts published in 1648, suggested that true believers were often mocked by the ignorant. As an example, he used the biblical story of Hannah, who was tormented [End Page 101] for her childlessness by Peninnah, her husband’s fertile wife.77 Younge was illustrating a broader argument, but an infertile woman could see this as a recommendation that she herself should continue to pray and hope for a child, even when faced with negative social stigmas. Prescriptive literature clearly encouraged infertile women to make personal connections with these biblical stories and see them as relevant to their own lives.


In her study of early modern women’s diaries and memoirs, the historian Sara Mendelson argues that for devout women in this period, “piety was apt to buttress traditional social roles in the married state, [but] we can also see some women turning to the religious life to compensate for the inadequacies of wedlock.”78 She suggests that religion served both to reinforce social norms about the importance of marriage and to comfort women who—having adhered to those norms—were unsatisfied with their married state. When religious authorities in post-Reformation England wrote about infertility, they reinforced the perception that motherhood was central to womanhood and that infertility was a trial to be borne or a curse to be overcome. At the same time, they offered infertile women comfort and hope.

In so doing, religious authorities buttressed the importance of faith in the lives of early modern women. The Reformation historian Eamon Duffy suggests that the use of working relics in “the domestic intimacies of pregnancy and childbirth” was evidence of “the widespread integration of the monastic shrines into the fabric of popular religion” in Pre-Reformation England.79 By encouraging infertile women to rely on prayer and faith and to look to biblical role models, Reformation preachers were integrating religion into the “domestic intimacies” of reproduction and offering women a new kind of “popular religion” to which they could look for aid and support in a difficult time.

Women’s records of their experiences with fertility problems suggest that these messages resonated with their own experiences of infertility. We cannot say with any certainty whether these ideas originated from women or from male preachers, but in these cases it seems more likely that women internalized ideas that came from the religious authorities, rather than the reverse. Women discussed their fertility problems primarily within female social circles and were unlikely to share their feelings with men in any detail.80 However, women were heavily exposed to scripture, sermons, and religious prescriptive literature. They could learn of the ideas promoted by preachers and adapt them to their needs, using messages that appeared in literature intended for a female audience, as well as sermons that used stories of infertility to make a broader argument. [End Page 102]

Early modern women suffering from infertility were comforted by their faith. At the same time, they accepted the significance of childbirth as the fulfillment of their identity as wives and as devout women. When devout women wrote about their experiences with infertility, they reiterated the ideas presented in sermons and religious guidebooks in a deeply personal and emotional way. Women prayed to God for a child because they felt His personal role in their lives, seeing Him as “my father” or “my God.” They also expressed a willingness to accept God’s will in the matter of their children, while struggling to demonstrate such acceptance. Women’s faith made their struggle with infertility meaningful. They took it as a sign that they should examine their soul and submit to God’s will. More importantly, it gave them hope that they too would hold their own Samuel.

Daphna Oren-Magidor

DAPHNA OREN-MAGIDOR is a fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her research interests include the history of gender and the history of the family in early modern England and Europe, and the history of reproduction. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Infertility in Early Modern England (under contract with Palgrave-MacMillan), and is also beginning a new research project on adult sisters in the early modern period.


. Several people commented on versions of this article. I would like to thank the editors and anonymous readers of the Journal of Women’s History, as well as Tim Harris, Tara Nummedal, Moshe Sluhovsky, Kelly Feinstein-Johnson, and Sarah Magidor for their invaluable suggestions.

1. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300–1840, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 51–57. Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 22. Mary Thomas Crane, “‘Players in Your Huswifery, and Huswives in Your Beds’: Conflicting Identities of Early Modern English Women” in Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, ed. Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000), 215. Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580–1680 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982), 108–18.

2. On the medical aspects of infertility see Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1984). Jennifer Evans, “‘Gentle Purges Corrected with Hot Spices, Whether They Work or Not, Do Vehemently Provoke Venery’: Menstrual Provocation and Procreation in Early Modern England,” Social History of Medicine, 25, no. 1 (February 2012), 2–19. Daphna Oren-Magidor, “‘Make me a Fruitfull Vine’: Dealing with Infertility in Early Modern England,” (PhD Diss., Brown University, 2012).

3. Patricia Crawford, Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England (Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2004), 79–112. Linda A. Pollock, “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England,” Social History 22, no. 3 (1997): 286–306. Olwen H. Hufton, The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996), 177–78.

4. Ulinka Rublack, “Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany,” Past & Present 150, no. 1 (1996): 84–110; Anthony Fletcher, “The Protestant Idea of Marriage in Early Modern England,” in Religion, Culture, and Society in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Patrick Collinson, ed. Patrick Collinson, [End Page 103] Anthony Fletcher, and Peter Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Crawford, Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England, 83.

5. Keith Thomas states that “Prayers of this type [intercessory prayers] were not controversial. Puritans and Anglicans, Catholics and Dissenters offered them with equal conviction.” Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribner, 1971), 134. Alexandra Walsham argues that Providentialism was “not a marginal feature of the religious culture of early modern England, but part of the mainstream, a cluster of presuppositions which enjoyed near universal acceptance.” Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2–3.

6. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 29.

7. Mary E. Fissell, “The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation,” Representations 87, no. 1 (2004): 43–81.

8. Susan Signe Morrison, Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England (London: Routledge, 2000), 28; Claire M. Waters, “Power and Authority” in A Companion to Middle English Hagiography, ed. Sarah Salih (Woodbridge, U.K: D.S. Brewer, 2006), 84.

9. Jacobus de Varagine, The Golden Legend, or Lives of the Saints, vol. 6 (AMS), 67–69.

10. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, C.1400–C.1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 383–85.

11. Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), 67–70; Henry Mayr-Harting, “Functions of a Twelfth-Century Shrine: The Miracles of St Frideswide,” in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis, ed. Henry Mayr-Harting and R. I. Moore (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), 193–206.

12. Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England, 329.

13. Ibid.; David Cressy, Bonfires & Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

14. Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

15. Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England, 20.

16. Ibid., 12.

17. Christine Peters, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 247.

18. Morrison, Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England, 29.

19. Varagine, The Golden Legend, or Lives of the Saints, 67–69.

20. Fissell, “The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation.” [End Page 104]

21. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 49.

22. 1 Samuel 1:11, The Geneva Bible, 1560.

23. Thomas Bentley, The Monument of Matrones (H. Denham: London, 1582), 6–7.

24. Ibid., index for lamps 1, 2, 3.

25. Vivienne Larminie, “Hieron, Samuel (bap. 1572, d. 1617),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

26. Samuel Hieron, A Helpe Vnto Deuotion (London: H. Lownes, 1611), 156.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 157–59.

29. Ibid., 160.

30. While there are, of course, differences between New England and England, the strong cultural connections between the two, especially in the first decades of the colony, mean that texts written in New England are also illustrative of religious attitudes in particular subcultures within England itself.

31. Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion (Cambridge, MA: S.G. and B.G., 1692), 88.

32. Genesis 30:1, King James Version (KJV).

33. Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, 88–89.

34. Ibid., 89.

35. The quotations from Mary’s diary appear in R. H. Whitelocke, Memoirs, Biographical and Historical of Bulstrode Whitelocke (1860), 286–87. According to Ruth Spalding, ed., Contemporaries of Bulstrode Whitelocke 1605–1675: Biographies, Illustrated by Letters and Other Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 439, this diary is now untraced, and therefore no modern scientific edition of it exists.

36. Whitelocke, Memoirs, Biographical and Historical of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 287.

37. Ibid., 288.

38. Bulstrode Whitelock and Ruth Spalding, The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605–1675 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 268.

39. Harriet Blodgett, “Savage, Sarah (1664–1752),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

40. Sarah Savage’s diary, Cheshire and Chester Record Office, ZD BASTEN 8, entry from October 9, 1687. [End Page 105]

41. Ibid., entry from July 19, 1687. A similar view of the matriarchs appeared in the prayer book of Elizabeth, Countess of Bridgewater, in which she asked God to let her children live and to bless her with children as he had blessed Abraham and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca. British Library Egerton MS 607, f. 22v.

42. Cheshire and Chester Record Office, ZD BASTEN 8, entry from March 28, 1687.

43. Ibid., entry from May 22, 1687.

44. Ibid., entries from June 10 and June 12, 1687.

45. Crawford, “Attitudes to Pregnancy from a Woman’s Spiritual Diary, 1687–8.”

46. Cheshire and Chester Record Office, ZD BASTEN 8, entries from July 19, 1687.

47. Ibid., entry from September, 1687.

48. Ibid., entry from October 16, 1687.

49. Anne Bradstreet and John Harvard Ellis, The Works of Anne Bradstreet (Charleston, S.C.: A.E. Cutter, 1867), 5. This part of Bradstreet’s corpus appeared in a manuscript notebook now known as the “Andover manuscript,” which Bradstreet left to her children.

50. Ibid., 5–6.

51. Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9; Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 8.

52. Ibid., 69.

53. Ibid., 8.

54. Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640, 65–66, 200–201, 220.

55. Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, CCXI Sociable Letters Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle (London: William Wilson 1664), 183.

56. Letter from Theodore Tourquet de Mayerne to the Duke of Newcastle, University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections, document Pw V 90/8, ff.25–28v.

57. Genesis 18: 9–15, KJV.

58. Arthur Hildersam, CLII Lectures Vpon Psalme LI (London: Printed by George Miller for Edward Brewster, 1635), 239.

59. From the King James translation. My thanks to Leigh Ann Wheeler for bringing this to my attention. [End Page 106]

60. On the perceived unreliability of women see: Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 50–51; Ulinka Rublack, The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 10, 13; and Helen King, Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: The Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 11.

61. John Eachard, Good Nevves for All Christian Souldiers (London: Matthew Simmons, 1645), 20.

62. Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons Upon the Whole 17th Chapter of the Gospel According to St. John (London: Printed by Abraham Miller for Thomas Underhill 1656), 217.

63. Discussions of Abraham’s exceptional faith in believing that Sarah would conceive also appear in: Andrew Gray, Great Precious Promises (Edinburgh: Printed by George Swintown and James Glen, 1669), 40; Samuel Slater, A Treatise of Growth in Grace in Sundry Sermons (London: Printed for R. Boulter, 1671), 15; John Wallis, The Life of Faith in Two Sermons (London: Printed by James Rawlins, 1684), 37; Richard Bentley, Of Revelation and the Messias (London: Printed by J.H. for Henry Mortlock, 1696), 9–10; and Thomas Jackson, An Helpe to the Best Bargaine a Sermon on Mat. 13–16 (London: Printed by Nich. Okes, for Mat. Walbanke, 1624), 17.

64. Thomas Jackson, Nazareth and Bethlehem (Oxford: Iohn Lichfield and William Wrench, 1617), 14.

65. The link between God allowing Sarah to conceive a child in a dead womb and the birth of faith was so powerful that Jeremiah Burroughs used it as a metaphor for the work of a minister in a sermon published in 1654. Jeremiah Burroughs, The Saints Treasury (London: Printed by T.C. for John Wright, 1654), 99.

66. Thomas Blake and Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Foederis, ed. Samuel Shaw (London: Abel Roper, 1658), 298.

67. S. Bold, A Sermon against Persecution (London: Richard Janeway, 1682), 3–4.

68. Roger Marbecke, A Defence of Tabacco (London: Printed by Richard Field for Thomas Man, 1602), 96.

69. Thomas Adams, The Sacrifice of Thankefulnesse (London: Printed by Thomas Purfoot for Clement Knight, 1616), 45.

70. Donald Lupton, Obiectorum Reductio (London: Printed by Iohn Norton for Iohn Rothwell, 1634), 55.

71. The literature on male infertility in this period is scant. I expand on the argument stated here in the third chapter of my dissertation, Oren-Magidor, “‘Make me a Fruitfull Vine.’”

72. Joseph Hall, The Remedy of Discontentment, or, a Treatise of Contentation in Whatsoever Condition Fitted for Sad and Troubled Times (London: Printed by G. Larkin for Obadiah Blagrave, 1684), 74. [End Page 107]

73. Abraham Wright, A Practical Commentary or Exposition Upon the Pentateuch (London: Printed by G. Dawson for Tho. Johnson, 1662).

74. Other references to Rachel’s excessive demands include: Thomas Adams, The Happines of the Church (London: Printed by G.P. for Iohn Grismand, 1619), 82; Richard Allestree, The Art of Contentment (Oxford: at the theatre in Oxford,1675), 79; and Lancelot Andrewes, Holy Devotions, with Directions to Pray (London: Printed for A. Seile, 1663), 442.

75. Michele Osherow, Biblical Women’s Voices in Early Modern England (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2009), 45–76. “Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.” 1 Samuel 1:13, KJV.

76. Thomas Fuller, A Sermon of Assurance (London: Printed by J.D. for John Williams, 1647), 27–28. Other sermons that used Hannah as a positive example include Stephen Marshall, The Strong Helper or, the Interest, and Power of the Prayers of the Destitute, for the Building up of Sion (London: Printed by Richard Cotes for Stephen Bowtell, 1645), 45. British Library Egerton MSS 2877, f. 24.

77. “And Peninah had children, but Hannah had no children. . . . And her [Hannah’s] adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb.” (Samuel I, 1:2, 6, KJV). Richard Younge, The Cause and Cure of Ignorance, Error, Enmity, Atheisme, Prophanesse, &C. (London: R.I. for N. Brook, 1648), 58.

78. Sara Heller Mendelson, “Stuart Women’s Diaries and Occasional Memoirs,” in Women in English Society, 1500–1800, ed. Mary Prior (London: Methuen, 1985), 194.

79. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, C.1400–C.1580, 385.

80. Oren-Magidor, “‘Make me a Fruitfull Vine.’” [End Page 108]

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